Shooting a good score when you’re not quite playing your best is an art form that Rory McIlroy is only beginning to learn.
He’s still not quite a master and if he wants to pull on that green jacket at Augusta National next week, he might start looking at Phil Mickelson’s build-up to the season’s opening major.
The 45-year-old left-hander has won three Masters titles since 2004 and while form the week before hasn’t always meant much — he was 10th in the BellSouth Classic in 2004, won that event before his second Masters win in 2006, and finished 35th in Houston before winning his third Masters — it’s been a useful event for brushing away those cobwebs and settling nerves.
While Tiger Woods never played the week before the Masters and he won four jackets, four of the last seven champions played in the Shell Houston Open warm-up, including Jordan Spieth last year.
McIlroy is at home in Florida working on his game but many of the leading contenders for the season’s first major are in Texas, headed by Spieth, Mickelson, Henrik Stenson, and Rickie Fowler.
Ireland’s Shane Lowry and Pádraig Harrington were also among the later starters.
Mickelson opened with a three under par 69 and while that left him four shots behind early leaders Dustin Johnson and Roberto Castro, who shot 65s, he was happy with his start at the Golf Club of Houston. “The good thing for me, my bad rounds now are respectable,” said Mickelson.
“This puts me in a position where if I shoot a number like I feel like I’m capable of, I should be right back in it for the weekend.”
It’s not that Houston reminds Mickelson of Augusta but that having a card and pencil gets him sharp. “I actually think that it’s more just about getting in a competitive frame of mind,” he said.
“I like the way the course is set up. The fairways and just off the fairway, the first cut, is similar to Augusta.
“But the greens are different grasses. They don’t have as much contour. You can’t hit drivers. You’re handcuffed on every tee box. Everything pinches in at 300.”
Johnson was less scientific in his reasons for being in Houston, insisting after a round featuring one eagle, seven birdies, and two bogeys that he doesn’t have a plan “Just however the schedule falls,” said Johnson.
McIlroy’s preparation appears to be as much about dealing with the mental pressure as getting his game right as he seeks the major needed to complete the career grand slam. “It’s always going to be there until I get to put a green jacket on my back,” he told PA Sport.
“Last year was my first of having to deal with that pressure and I feel I’m better equipped now.
“I’ve got a little bit of experience in how to deal with it and approach it. In 2015 it was a good thing that Tiger was coming back because I felt like it took a little bit of pressure off me.”
He added: ”The thing I have to remember is you’ve beaten all these guys before and if you simplify it, that’s what you’re trying to do…
“I felt especially for the first couple of majors last year I maybe put a bit too much pressure on myself, expectations were very high. I just need to not think about the consequences so much.”
Meanwhile, in the first LPGA Major of the year, Jordanstown’s Stephanie Meadow has work to do to make the cut after opening with a four over 76 in the ANA Inspiration in California to trial Japan’s Ai Miyazato (67) by nine shots.
Cavan amateur Leona Maguire was a late starter.
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